Book Review - Conditionally Human by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Conditionally Human by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1962, 191pp) collects three unrelated novelettes by this master of social SF into one volume. I picked this up at a used bookstore near my home when I was looking for the story Dark Benediction. Only later did I realize there's an SF Masterworks volume called Dark Benediction that is a reprint of a 1980 Best Of volume that contains all three of these and more. I wish I'd gotten that one instead, but perhaps there's some value in the one I did get, being a first edition.
1. Conditionally Human (1952, 60pp)
Conditionally Human takes place sometime in the near future on Earth (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). The planet has reached a sustainable maximum population of 5 billion people and these people are spread out across the world in an endless American style suburb where everyone has a house on a modest plot of land and every few blocks there are some service oriented businesses. To keep the population in check, only the class A and B people are allowed to have children. Those in class C or lower have taken to adopting pets as child replacements, and so naturally the pet industry has boomed and evolved. The best child-replacement pets are genetically modified hairless neuters of chimps, colloquially called 'newts'.
Terry Norris is an animal control agent in this world - a newfangled dogcatcher. His job is to inspect pet shops, track down escapees, and put down pets that cant be rehabilitated. His new wife, Anne, says he's a murderer, and the story opens with an argument between the two. However, the dynamic changes quickly when Norris is called and asked to track down a number of Bermuda K-99 series newts in order to examine them for a known deviant. Seems one of the geneticists responsible for creating these things intentionally made some deviants, and there's a risk of them reproducing - and there goes the population limit! So this becomes his top priority. But when he actually finds one of these deviants, things start to go off the rails, and his decisions will affect the lives of more than just newts.
2. The Darfstellar (1954, 67pp)
The Darfstellar takes place in a future where stage actors have been replaced by mannequins who are programmed to take on various roles in stage plays. The mannequins are enlivened by playing a taped performance by a real actor. The real actor plays the role in a studio, and their performance is taped. This tape is then purchased by theatre companies around the world and applied to the mannequin playing the role, The actor is credited with playing the performance. The whole performance is coordinated by a maestro, a computer or robot that ties everything together and is able, to a limited degree, of compensating for errors or audience tastes.
Enter Ryan Thornier, the darfstellar in question. A darfstellar is a self-directing actor - one whose acting ability wells up from within, and who can't be totally directed while on stage. Ryan hasn't acted in ten years, because there's no demand for human actors anymore, and he refused to sell out and tape performances for mannequins. He now works as a stage hand at a local theatre. He's on the verge of quitting his job when he learns that a production of The Anarch is coming back - ten years ago, he was slotted to play the lead in the same production when the whole thing fell through for lack of money. With it's return, he sees a chance to engineer one last stage performance for himself, and he plans to go out with a bang.
This won the very first Hugo award for a novelette.
3. Dark Benediction (1951, 57pp)
Paul is one of the last true humans alive in post-apocalyptic Texas. A few years ago, space seeds fell from the sky bringing alien bacteria which transformed people into 'Dermies' - infectious and insane human-alien hybrids. Paul is tired of constantly being on guard and trying to find a place to settle down and live in peace somewhere Dermie free. Houston isn't the place, he soon discovers - the 'free' people there are no better than the Dermies. For reasons beyond what even Paul can understand, he rescues a young Dermie girl from the clutches of the Houstonians, and in his search to find help for her discovers the kind of community he's been looking for. There's only one catch - to live there, he needs to revise his definition of humanity.
Walter M. Miller Junior wrote one of my favourite books of all time, A Canticle for Leibowitz so I had high expectations before getting into this series of novelettes. At first I wasn't too thrilled by the subject matter - dogcatchers and disgruntled actors not being really my thing. But Miller was a wonderful writer and a master of character-driven speculative fiction, and in spite of my misgivings I found myself really caring about these people and their antics. And in the 'more-bang-for-my-buck' department, each of these features a nice bit of social commentary for you to chew on. These aren't the type of stories to hit you over the head with some issue (well, I suppose Dark Benediction does, come to think of it, but the others don't), but they do leave you thinking - perhaps about an issue you never thought of, or in a way you never thought of it. In this day of logarithmic automation, falling birthrates in the west, and xenophobia, these three stories are perhaps even more relevant and poignant today than the day they were published. 4 out of 5 stars from me.